Wednesday, 28 January 2015

An Ageing System

It's always puzzled me, this thing about people getting right-wing as they get older.  You'd think that the opposite would happen.

I mean, as you get older, you notice that the world keeps having the same problems, and that they tend to have the same underlying causes, and that nothing is ever done about them.  You notice more and more of the same kinds of scandals reoccurring over the years, time and again, and always based upon imbalances of power, and upon powerful people being unaccountable.  You're more likely to have a mortgage and debts, the older you are.  You're more likely to owe lots of money to banks and credit agencies, and to be crippled by these debts.  You're more likely to have health problems, and thus to need medical care, and thus to see that the Health Service is underfunded and overstretched.  You're more likely to realise that your investments and savings (if you have any) don't pay off in anything like the way you're told they will when you're younger.  You're more likely to worry about how you will look after yourself and your partner in old age.  You're more likely to notice your retirement receding into the distance.  You're more likely to find yourself paying through the nose for medications that go with age, medications your parents didn't have to pay through the nose for.  You're more likely to meet more and more people of different 'races' and nationalities, and thus to notice that they're not too different to you.  You're more likely to have been mistreated at work, or sacked, or been forced to find second jobs or third jobs.  You're more likely to have seen talentless people around you rising while you stay still, simply because they were born with advantages you never had.  You're more likely to have lived through several wars and recessions instead of just one or two.  You're more likely to have observed the way the world's weather systems have catastrophically changed even in the last few decades.  You're more likely to have seen friends' lives ruined by discrimination or depression or stress.  You're more likely to have seen your parents face an uncertain and neglected old age.  And you're more likely to have kids and grandkids, and to see all the challenges they face.  A restricted job market, more and more pressure on them to work harder to have a chance of being employed one day, the escalating cost of further and higher education, more debt earlier in life, less chance of being able to afford to buy a house or even move out of their parents' home, spiraling costs of living, less social safety nets, a squeezed education system.  And on and on it goes.

Decades of life means decades of observing the world getting worse, and the so-called solutions never working, and the so-called progressive parties always selling people out, and the persistence of poverty and corruption never being addressed, and inequality and injustice always being at the root of the problems.  And it means becoming more and more vulnerable, as an individual or as part of a family, to the insecurity and hardships capitalism causes and relies upon.

Basically, the saying "you get more right-wing as you get older" is something only applicable to people who are already economically and socially privileged.  Such people can afford to dabble with being left-wing when they're young, if they feel like it.  They can rely on rich parents to bankroll such flirtations with leftiness.  When they're young and cushioned, it costs them nothing.  Principles are always easier if they cost you nothing.  Then, as they get older, they take their place in the system of privilege that was always waiting to welcome them.  They see their savings and investments rising (because, generally, the more you have the more you make from it), their property becoming more and more valuable, their financial situation getting comfier and more secure every day.  At the very least, they see themselves comparatively insulated.  Their parents enjoy a luxurious old-age and then die, leaving them more property and investments and savings.  Their own children and grandchildren don't have to worry about the deficiencies of state education, or the deficiencies of the NHS, or the debts accrued during further and higher education, or the uncertainties of the job market.  Jobs wait for them.  Economic security is built into life for such people and their families.  Like all people with privilege, their primary focus is to hold onto it ferociously.  We all know that privilege causes people to feel aggrieved by the faintest suggestion of a challenge to their privilege.  This is at the root of much misogyny.  Patriarchy causes men think of women as appliances.  How angry would you be if your vacuum cleaner suddenly refused to work?  I dunno about you, but when things like that happen to me I swear at the errant machine and feel pretty damned aggrieved.  Men extend the same logic to women who don't want to be treated as equipment.  And Corey Robin, a historian of ideas, has done some very good work describing how modern conservatism is, at bottom, the ideological expression of the struggle to retain privilege.

This pattern is most pronounced in the very rich, of course.  But it used to hold pretty reliably (if scaled down) for the moderately rich, and down to the middle classes.  (It even used to hold for a certain extent to the working classes during the long post-war boom, which looks like a utopia of economic justice, job security and progressive welfarism compared to where we are now.)  However, like many old cultural certainties of capitalism, this pattern is breaking up - with increasing speed.  (Capitalism does this.)  The middle classes and petty bourgeoisie are more and more squeezed, more and more threatened by uncertainty.  The iron law of neoliberalism is the redistribution of wealth upwards - and this is really just a variation on what always happens in capitalism during its built-in periodic crises.  And, the bottom looking increasingly drained, neoliberalism - especially now in this era of crisis and austerity - is feeding on the middle.

Of course, the people in the middle can't be expected to draw left-wing conclusions from all this.  Such people generally drift to... da daaa!... the populist far-right (i.e. UKIP, BNP, the Tea Party, various European equivalents).  And, in the absence of organised organs of workers' struggle, the people at the bottom will often drift that way too.  Especially when you factor in the massive effort neoliberal capitalism puts into pushing and sustaining ideological disorientation.

Neoliberal capitalism itself is getting more ideologically right-wing as it gets older.  The only sane response is to go in the other direction.

But it's not easy.  Because, with that lifetime of confronting the horrors there also comes a lifetime of getting entangled in the very hard work and stress it takes to navigate them, and the fatalism of seeing nothing ever getting better, and the pessimism of constant defeats, and the confusion sewn by decades of 'There Is No Alternative'.  That's why the only thing that has a chance of fundamentally altering this downward spiral is a resurgence in working class organisation, in the teeth of the longstanding and hugely-successful neoliberal project of destroying the power of unions. 

That's why every success for the left, however compromised, however embedded in reformist politics and parliamentarianism, has to be seized upon. 

Because the dialectic of change has to start somewhere.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Greece is the Word

Yes, yes, Syriza is a bourgeois reformist party which has drifted to the right even in the last few years.  I know.  A Syriza victory will not bring full communism in Greece.  No, true.  A Syriza government will cave in and give up all over the place.  The way all bourgeois reformist parties always do, even quite Lefty ones.  Yes.  I know.

I knows and knows and knows. 

The point is that, as with all Left-wing reformist parties, it will be as strong or as weak as the movement among the working class.  It will be pushed to the Left by a genuine movement on the streets and in the workplaces.  Or to the Right by the absence of such a movement.

The anti-reformist gloom of writing off Syriza before it starts is, paradoxically, the gloom of the reformist.  It is the gloom of those who secretly expect (or want) elected governments to do it all for them.

A Syriza victory would create a space within Austerity neoliberalism for a challenge (however partial and bourgeois and reformist and imperfect) to the prevailing, even suffocating, orthodoxy.  The punishing flow of weath upwards may be slowed, just a bit, just for a change, somewhere.  And, with work and struggle, this could be exploited and built upon.  This would push the government further.  Which would expand the space for resistance, etc etc etc. 

Every victory - however partial - for the working class is to be chased and seized upon and celebrated (yes, critically celebrated, of course) because every victory for the working class, evey improvement in the position and confidence of the working class, strengthens the only force in the world that has the power, ultimately, to fundamentally change it for the better.

This isn't a fully worked out theoretical position.  There are plenty of better places you can go for that.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

American Auton

One thing has become clear: Clint Eastwood is actually a deeply left-wing, anti-imperialist auteur with a profoundly sceptical and cynical attitude to America, war and patriotism.

It's the fake baby that proves it.  

A sentimentalised emblem of American family life... represented on screen as something blatantly unreal, synthetic, cheap, ersatz, evidently and transparently fake... and yet none of the ostensibly admirable icons of American values notice it!  Instead the fake baby is cooed over like a beautiful, perfect, inspirational, precious, living child... even as Bradley Cooper (who must have been in on Eastwood's satirical joke at the expense of red-state America, the Pentagon and all so-called 'Heartland values') brazenly waggles the mannequin's little plastic hand and pretends the baby is moving by itself.

Let's repeat that: he pretends the baby is moving.  In this we see not only a Swiftian subversion of the exploitation of children as a lachrymose pavlovian trigger for tears of jingoistic pride in the eyes of America's right-wing ideologues, but also a deeply disturbing reminder of all those babies - blown to pieces, dissolved in white phosphorous, or starved - who will never move on their own ever again thanks to the rampant violence of American military adventurism.

The symbol of America's bright and moral future is literally a dead, hollow, plastic replica... and none of the characters notice.  Too brainwashed by flags and Fox News and the 4th of July to see the cold, lifeless truth even when they hold it.  And the idealised American child, the child of the patriot who has killed again and again for the US imperium, is also a reminder of the countless really dead babies that America has left in its wake across the globe.

Moreover, we - the audience - are evidently supposed to pretend we don't notice.  And he's tricked loads of reactionaries into doing just that.  Praising this superficially jingoistic, neo-con movie while silently passing over an insultingly blatant (and, on the face of it, ludicrous) piece of diegetic disruption. 

Eastwood - who is obviously secretly more far-left than Michael Moore - has trolled the entire country.  He's even trolled those critics who have pointed out the fakeness of the baby!  Do they think he doesn't know it's obviously fake?  How myopic are these people?  How myopic are the liberal critics of the film who have totally failed to comprehend the depth of Eastwood's scabrous, scathing subversion?  Eastwood has placed a blatant and horrifying truth about fakeness and sentimentality right in front of the entire United States... and he has stood back and let us watch as they all fail to see it.

It's Eastwood's most ascerbic bit of leftist absurdism, his most acidically situationist bit of surrealist theatre since the talking-to-the-empty-chair masterpiece (a performance of inspired performative lunacy that he managed to trick the GOP into letting him do on stage at their conference!).  

It's also possibly the most devastatingly subtle - yet also furiously dyspeptic and radical - comment on modern America in recent cinema.

Comrade Eastwood, I salute you.

Saturday, 3 January 2015


The Doctor and Felix came to the village of Once on New Years' Eve.  Or rather, they came to where the village of Once had once been.

"Where is it?" asked Felix in his lilting German accent, staring into the empty valley beyond the copse in which they stood.

The Doctor tipped her head forwards slightly, to let accumulated snow tumble from the crown and brim of her battered, crumpled old top hat.

"Exactly," she said.

The village had disappeared years ago, she told him.

"Well," she continued, her words turning to steam in the cold air, "nobody knows exactly when it happened... or should I say when it, the village I mean, stopped happening."

It had taken a few months of accumulated surprises and puzzlements and disappointments and silences and ominous remarks before the conscious realisation had gradually dawned upon the people in the surrounding villages that the village of Once was no longer there.

"The government realised pretty quickly of course," continued the Doctor, "because the people in Once stopped paying their taxes.  But the government kept quiet about it, in case it gave any other villages ideas.  As best as anyone can make out, the village vanished from existence somewhere between Christmas and New Years, 1849."

"I suppose it has become one of those perennial mysteries," suggested Felix in his perfect schoolboy English, "like the Mary Celeste? "

"Umm, not really," said the Doctor, "You see, hierarchical cultures actually have a very low tolerance for mysteries that are genuinely mysterious.  They prefer prosaic mysteries.  The Mary Celeste, for instance.  I mean it's odd certainly, but the broad outlines of it aren't all that challenging to any common sense ideas about how the world works.  The ship was discovered with the crew and passengers gone.  Obviously, then, they left.  The reason why they left may be obscure, but the essential mechanism of the event is comprehensible enough.  They left.  People can, and will, do that.  But an entire village physically vanishing, structures and roads and farm animals and all..." she smiled wryly "...that's a bit different.  That sort of thing just doesn't happen.  Or rather, it does happen, but it's - if you'll pardon me - vanishingly rare.  When it happens, people get very nervous.  It undermines their sense of reality.  Human beings disappearing, that's one thing.  But property?  That's another.  Especially in England."

Felix chuckled.  "So this is one of those mysteries that polite English people do not talk about."

(The Doctor, by the way, genuinely doesn't know what happened on board the Mary Celeste.  It's one of the strange things about the Doctor's life: we know a lot more about some of the events in it than she does.)

They left the shelter of the copse and walked until they reached the bottom of the empty valley.  Their feet crunched in the snow, and ice-blue moonlight pooled in the caverns of their footprints.

Felix began to have a very strange sense that he was following a road that he could not see, passing houses that were almost - but not quite - visible.

He suddenly became aware of how cold he was.  How his toes were stinging with the cold even inside his boots.  How numb his fingers were.  He hunched over in his greatcoat and plunged his hands into his armpits.  It was like being back in the trenches.

The Doctor didn't seem to notice the cold, or how it was affecting Felix.  She wore her threadbare astrakhan jacket buttoned up, but that meant nothing.  She wore it like that whatever the weather.

"So how can an entire village just disappear?" he asked in an attempt to chivvy the Doctor along a bit, "Structures and roads and farm animals and all?"

"A surprising question," said the Doctor, "coming from someone who's actually been in villages that stopped existing the same day."

"That's war," said Felix sadly, who had met the Doctor at a football match in No-Man's-Land on Christmas Day 1914.  She had played defensive midfield, and had impressed him by tackling him with great ferocity as he made a bid for the two trenchcoats bundled on the ground nearest the British lines.  The bruises on his shins had taken almost a fortnight to fade.

"This might be sign of a war too," said the Doctor.  "The universe is like a battlefield sometimes.  Great powers struggling with each other for reasons incomprehensible to the little people who get caught in the rain of shells..."

"So a... a shell, fired as part of some astral conflict, went astray and this poor little innocent village became a casualty, just because it happened to be near the front line?"

Felix felt depressed by this idea.  Could it really be that the entire universe worked according to the same horrible rules as that war from which he had just escaped?

The Doctor didn't answer.  She seemed to have withdrawn into sad reflections of her own.

"Nobody ever tried to rebuild, then?" asked Felix nervously, "Or start a new village?  It seems a waste.  Such a fertile valley - in the warm months, I mean.  A stream..." he pointed to a frozen crick, and then gestured around "...and good farming land..."

He knew about things like this.  He was a country boy himself, born and bred in a little village not unlike Once must have been.  Not unlike that village in Belgium...

"Another interesting aspect of the matter," said the Doctor ruminatively, "this peculiarly decorous refusal of anyone to reclaim the valley, or even to acknowledge that anything was ever here.  You'll notice that there's no memorial.  Nothing.  And we're in..." she consulted her fob watch "...1962 now, so more than enough time has passed for people to feel as though the lost village of Once warrants some form of commemoration."

Felix was becoming distinctly unnerved.  He felt as though he was surrounded by people, people who could only just be sensed in the corner of his eye, people who were not to be seen when he turned to look at them.  He caught himself having to suppress little jumps of panic every time he sensed an invisible wall or door, or an unseen human presence near him.

He felt ashamed of his weakness.  He hadn't been a nervous person a few months ago.  The war had done it.  But plenty of his comrades in the trenches had coped without becoming nervous wrecks.

He wondered if the presences around him were the ghosts of the annihilated villagers from long ago.  He wondered if he could sense them because they had died in a war, and he was a soldier.  Did that mean that they could sense him in return?

He became aware that the Doctor was watching him.

"I'm all right," he said.

She came over to him and threaded one of her arms through one of his.

"Cold?" she asked.

"No," he said, shaking his head solemnly even as his teeth chattered.

"Good," laughed the Doctor.  Then, in a serious voice: "You can feel it too, can't you?"

Felix looked up at her.  She was much taller than him.

"I'm not imagining it then?"

"No," she said.

"You expected it?"


He looked down.  She'd been testing him again, or using him to test a conclusion of hers that she hadn't told him about.  He didn't know how he felt about this.  At best, it made him feel like an instrument.  At worst, like a sheep being sent across a minefield.

"We may as well go back to the TARDIS," said the Doctor suddenly, "We've learned all we can here."

"What have we learnt?" asked Felix, who didn't feel any more wise than when they'd arrived - just colder.

"That the village is still here," she said.  "Or rather... the village isn't here or not here.  It's more complicated than that.  But it has, at least, left traces.  Traces that are sensible to human beings.  That answers one question anyway.  A question you asked earlier.  The question of why nobody ever built here, or erected a memorial.  People sensed that they'd be building on top of... or commemorating... something that was, in some way, still there.  The people who came here sensed the village around them, just like you did.  Of course, the past is always still around us... but more so here than in other places."

"So are we going to investigate?" asked Felix, who knew the Doctor well enough already to know the answer.

The Doctor nodded.

"How?" asked Felix.

The Doctor said nothing.  She just started leading him out of the valley.  They trod in their own footprints on the way back to the wood.

The TARDIS was in a tree.  A grand, grave, elder-statesman of a horse chestnut.  Winter had turned it into a thing of gaunt, rattling, bony arms.  It looked like a snow-muffled riot of skeletons.  The TARDIS doors were set into its trunk, their blue blending seamlessly at the edges with the green and the grey and the brown of the gnarled bark.  The Doctor flourished her jangly mess of keys around the keyhole, and she and Felix clambered inside.

A few moments later, by their time, they emerged.  They had just walked out of a moonlit night; now they emerged into a morning flooded with low sunlight. The tree was younger and smaller now, less grave and angry-looking, but just as skeletal.   It was still winter, but a winter 113 years earlier than the one through which they'd just walked.  Snow from 1962 fell from their boots into the snow of 1849.  When the warmer weather came, it would all melt into the same puddles and then sink into the same earth.  When the Doctor and her friends travel, water and dust and seeds and air will travel with them.  The future and the past mingle and melt into each other, and cross-fertilise.

Felix was soon looking out from the edge of the same copse into the same valley.  But this time, Once was there, cradled in the valley like eggs in a nest.

"By spending Christmas 1849 in the village of Once," said the Doctor quietly, gathering a stray garland of hair out of her face and tucking it back up under the brim of her hat.  "New Years too perhaps.  We'll see how it goes."

"Will I be welcome?" asked Felix.

"You should be a hit," said the Doctor, "if there's one thing Germans are good at - besides classical music and critiques of political economy - it's Christmas."